It’s Time to Stop. Collaborate & Listen

St George’s Hall lit in purple light featured in an arial photograph at night
St George’s Hall sits with the Cultural Quarter of Liverpool, Image copyright Stratus Imagery.

“During times of crisis, it can be difficult to think of the future, to know how to progress and embrace creativity and think outside of the box. However this week I was reminded that now is the perfect time to stop, collaborate and listen.

Attending the ROCK, Open Knowledge Week seminar, (digital in the current climate) I was inspired by the projects undertaken around Europe in utilising our culture and heritage for the regeneration of both physical places and the mental transformations of residents. Listening to the city of Eindhoven discussing their “Living Lab” and how they have utilised people’s experiences at their cultural events to feed into the urban regeneration of their city was inspiring. Noting that collaboration starts in crisis, their development of a previously unused gas works into a community where all buildings have been declared as municipal monuments and now thrives as an inclusive community for all ages, abilities and skills is nothing short of fascinating and one which I will certainly be following with interest.

Basing their continued development on culture, the recent ROCK seminar shared experiences from European cities who clearly understand the importance of culture and heritage in their redevelopment. Cities like Bilbao, Frankfurt and Glasgow have all achieved international recognition and the works of Vilnius, Turin and Lisbon are all set to continue in this successful vein. The difference being, it would appear, is that there is a change in attitude towards the use of culture and heritage as a tool by which to develop and regenerate.

Previously, cultural regeneration has focused on specific segments; social, physical locations and areas or economic impact. Listening to the success of these recent cities like Eindhoven, Lisbon and Bologna it is clear to see that they have developed an integrated and combined approach to regeneration — involving all stakeholders on their cultural journey to tackle a combined focus affecting both people and place. In doing so, they are place-making, utilising culture and heritage as the fuel and the people as the mechanism for transport. No longer is heritage about a building, a location or title — rather, it is an experience that people can interact with, can consume and enjoy and by doing so integrates itself into the daily culture of a people.

Vilnius, if you didn’t know, is the capital of Lithuania, highlighted this perfectly in their use of heritage and culture. With a 98% profile of residents noting they are happy living in Vilnius, they detailed how the use and integration of cultural activities and events in the city provided an increase in the optimism of citizens, that by measuring people’s feelings and attitudes towards cultural events and experiences they were able to create a positive “culture” as it were, engraining the concept into daily lives identifying with the needs and wants of its people which, during the pandemic crisis, has already resulted in a more positive experience of its residents in their resilience to the crisis.

The link between the positivity of a city and the mental wellbeing of its residents is well documented, the value of culture and heritage in improving the mental health and wellbeing of a city’s residents cannot be undervalued in terms of its impact on local resources and funding, particularly in the current climate. However, by treating culture and heritage as a consumable experience, something that can be integrated into contemporary society and which doesn’t stand alone as a one-off event/experience/venue is perfect for the physical transformation of a city. A positive, happy and engaged community provides a perfect social ‘space’ for residents and visitors alike to want to live, work and play, as it were. This backdrop provides the perfect platform to engage with stakeholders in urban regeneration as it provides an attractive engaging community for cultural industries and creatives; a backdrop for which urban regeneration can take place with quirky, new forward-thinking and innovative infrastructure which can make use of heritage sites and provide a platform on which to elevate regenerated cities to a new demographic in the current buzz theme of “place-making”.

From the use of disused factories in Eindhoven to forgotten urban spaces in Lisbon — the use of heritage, architecture and history is a vital component in this continued cultural regeneration of cities and one which Culture Liverpool is once again proud to be at the forefront of as part of the European ROCK project.

Our work with Liverpool University on the “If Walls Could Talk” pilot at St George’s Hall has positioned us among the leading cultural organisations in the world making use of virtual technologies to engage deeper with our cultural heritage and history. As a historic Grade 1 listed listed building, St George’s Hall is the jewel in our city’s crown in Liverpool and sits proudly in the cultural quarter that was created by the Victorians to house the publically accessible cultural institutions in the city. Nestled amongst a vibrant, bustling city centre it can be easy to forget the history that lies behind its columns, majestic monuments and imposing structure but to treat it as such would be both a disservice and a missed opportunity.

Applying the principles of our European counterparts, the use of heritage and culture as a consumable experience formed part of a pilot project through virtual reality and I was delighted to be able to see the transformation of our courtrooms, cells and history brought to life in a contemporary, fun and informative manner. The history of the Hall is too much to go into, though I do recommend a tour at any time*, I’m safe to say it is diverse. As the home for the city to come at times of joy and sorrow, it is a historic venue with a great many tales to tell and that of the famous court case of Florence and James Maybrick in 1889 was one we brought to life through virtual technology. In a world-first, our partnership with Microsoft, University of Liverpool, LIPA and ROCK enabled the provision of an immersive real-world experience which projected films of actors across the walls of our cells, courtroom and building in as real-life an experience as could be possible, so much so that feedback from participants highlighted how real, emotional and present they felt at the event.

Spoilers aside, I won’t reveal the outcome, when it is safe to do so you’re welcome to visit us to find out how it went, the use of technology-enabled us to encourage participation, to bring to life the heritage and history of our building in a new and innovative way for today’s audiences. As noted previously, the heritage and history of a place cannot be sensed, felt and experienced through facts and fixtures on a page rather it is an emotive experience that forms part of our everyday culture. A place’s culture is its set of learned values, its experiences and history that make it who it is today and that is built up from its venues and people combined. It is its famous court cases, its music, its events, its stories that make up a learned behaviour that makes its people and its culture — without which, we wouldn’t have an identifying personality of a city, something that makes it unique amongst a world of noise.

By bringing to life our history and heritage, in Liverpool, through the use of technology it is possible to seamlessly integrate the traditional with the modern, to bridge the gap between the past and present and form a cultural future that embraces the old and the new. It provides a city with a unique position in which its residents are engaged with where they have been and where they are going, a positive people in a city that is endorsing its own culture with experiences, events and heritage brought to life while it shines a spotlight on itself to highlight to the world what a fantastic place this is to live, work and play thus attracting inward investment, new cultures and people to develop the heritage of the city even further and on into the future.

This is after all, what the port city of Liverpool has been doing all along, as a city, we have embraced our own culture and heritage since 1207 and have welcomed with open arms culture and innovation from around the world to develop the heritage of a unique personality that is famous the world over. As the tides of the Mersey ebb and flow, today we are using interactive digital technology to engage in placemaking, we are embracing our people, our heritage our culture as together we make the final place — Liverpool.”

Alan Smith, Manager, St George’s Hall, Culture Liverpool

*At the time of writing, the tours are currently closed due to covid-19 but do get in touch if you have any enquiries regarding visiting.

Telling stories. Delivering events. Championing creativity. Inspiring audiences. Thinking forward. — Culture: the rocket fuel for regeneration.

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